What went wrong: The story behind the Atlantic Yards prefab tower

TreeHugger has been covering the saga of the B2 tower at the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn since it was first announced. I was skeptical and wrote World's Tallest Prefab To Be Built in Brooklyn? Fuggedaboutit. Then it got started and I concluded that I had been wrong and I ate my words.

Others were not so easily swayed. Journalist Norman Oder has been covering the Atlantic Yards story since 2005, some say obsessively. He blogs about it at Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report, and defines what he does:

Anyone can be a "blogger;" some disparage "bloggers" as those who don't do new reporting or provide verifiable information. So I prefer being described as a journalist who writes a blog, or uses the blog format. I do lots of shoe-leather reporting--and even shoot/use video these days--and do my best to cite checkable sources.

worlds tallest prefab© Shop Architects

Now he has pulled the story of the B2 prefab into one long piece at City Limits, and what a story it is. B2 was going to be the world's tallest modular tower, and also be faster and cheaper than conventional construction. the developer claimed that he had "cracked the code" of prefab. Instead, as Oder notes,

Today, the reality of B2 has not matched the anticipation. The building—delayed, stalled, and since re-started to reach half its ultimate height—will take more than twice as long as promised and cost far more than projected. B2, also known as 461 Dean Street, remains mired in lawsuits filed by Forest City and its former partner Skanska, with dueling charges of incompetent execution and flawed design.

The tale is a litany of compounding tolerance errors, misalignment problems, leaking gaskets and waterproofing failures. Then there were lawsuits between the developer and the contractor, Skanska, who walked off the job. The whole mess could set the industry back for years. Oder notes:

It's not clear that the troubles encountered by B2 reflect on the potential for high-rise modular in general, the specific technology used in the project, or the execution by the companies involved. Some in the field criticized Forest City for pushing modular beyond typical North American practice by commissioning modules with their facades attached in the factory, which shows a greater commitment to prefabrication but allows for less adjustability.

And indeed, in the other very important New York modular tower in Kips Bay, they are cladding the exterior in brick veneer, the ultimate on-site cover-your-mistakes and misalignment technology.

I am really saddened by this and have no sense of schadenfreude. But here you had an arrogant developer who was sure he could do anything, an extremely talented architect who was inexperienced in the prefab field, intellectual property disputes, fee disputes, union resistance, (the unions just lost their case against the building), and more, yet they were still going to build the first building in less time for less money. One source told me that they didn't even take into account the fact that steel, under compression, actually shrinks a bit, so that modules couldn't fit or were getting squished as new modules were piled above. The whole thing is one big mess of hubris and arrogance more than anything else.

It's a long, fascinating article; Norman Oder has done just an amazing, almost obsessive job covering this story. And he really has shown the difference between being a blogger and a journalist. David Smith of the Affordable Housing Institute said "give this man a Pulitzer"; I concur. See all of our coverage below, all of which owes a big debt to Norman Oder.

Tags: New York City

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